Before departing Melbourne for Montana, my last email to Zach Neville our guide was, “Zach, happy to catch browns and rainbows all day but I am not leaving Montana until I catch a cutthroat.” This we achieved but there is a cruel twist, drama perhaps – even tragedy; more about this later.
Last week I caught up with my good friend John for eight days flyfishing the Yellowstone, Gallatin and Madison rivers, plus some lesser known rivers and the stunning Yellowstone National Park streams. Yellowstone National Park is beautiful and wild beyond description, throw in black bears, grizzlies, bison, deer, bighorn sheep and wolves and you could be forgiven for forgetting that you are there to flyfish; sit back and absorb the many wonders. Mind you when fishing a spare set of eyes in the back of your head would come in handy as the danger of coming across one of these wild animals is real. Most fishers carry bear mace and handguns (the sight of hand guns in holsters was common and seemed somewhat appropriate, after all this is cowboy country, the Wild West.)
The fishing, well it’s not always easy and the weather as usual plays on the outcome. According to our guide and the helpful fly shops, Montana is experiencing very low river flows and the rivers have warmed early. Imposed “hoot owl”, river closured, between 2 pm and midnight is the earliest in 17 years…just my luck. Despite the challenges we caught lots of fish, browns, immaculate rainbows, whitefish and the famed cutthroats. Fish size ranged from 10 inches to well over 22 inches.
The best fishing was with our guide Zach (www.zachnevilleoutfitters.com). Zach is a hell of a nice guy and really knows his stuff. He got us on to a lot of fish and when the rivers muddied due to daily thunderstorms in the mountains he was able to convince us that despite the murk he knew where the big browns come out to play. He was spot on. We tangled with some big fish and plenty of good fish in between.
Our DIY days were a mixture of success and a little frustration. The frustration bit relates to not knowing the region well so we travelled many miles to find cool clear water. The successes were very rewarding, we love solving a puzzle and with a little bit of good advice we located some tremendous lesser known streams that were simply magic and produced thumping hard-fighting rainbows and browns to 18 inches and a few that simply smoked us!
I didn’t want to leave Montana without catching a few cutthroats. We caught some in Yellowstone National Park around the 12-14 inch size but I wanted a bigger fish. While I did get my wish, the circumstances of the catch are quite bizarre. This is what happened.
On our last guided day with Zach he suggested we fish the lower reaches of the Yellowstone and have a real crack at some big browns. Hard to say no. We floated along on what turned out to be a day of perfect weather and working the banks and bubble lines, we landed a good number of chunky fish using the effective double nymph rig under an indicator. After lunch Zach asked if we wanted to have a shot at fishing the shallow bouldery sections of the river with a big hopper pattern. Only a few hoppers are on the water this early but he suggested that the big ol’ browns are smart enough to know when a few hoppers are about. We might blank, Zach added, but then again we might find the fish of the trip! We jumped at the prospect.
Half an hour into the session I slapped down the hopper with a trailing stonefly nymph in a foot of water, mended and watched. Within a few seconds a 24-26 inch brown saw the hopper and at full speed (never seen a big brown move so fast) attacked the hopper like it was its last meal. Strike and I was on to the biggest fish of the trip. I played it carefully and tired it out drawing on all my NZ experiences. Finally we had the big brown at the boat but being a cunning brute it wasn’t going to just give up and jump in Zach’s oversized net.
Under the boat he went as I did everything in my power to keep my leader away from catching on anything, I played the fish to the other side, Zach lent over and netted… an 18 inch Cutthroat. We sat there in disbelief, shattered. Had I imagined the 6 pound brown? Had someone spiked my drink, was I going crazy?
Well I got my big cutthroat but at the expense of what surely is a trophy for this river. In taking the stonefly nymph dropper, the sneaky native must have somehow dislodged the big brown from the hopper.
Montana is Spanish for ‘mountain’ or ‘mountain country’ and that it is. Big country, big trucks, big hearted people. Great food, saloons and bourbon shots! The fishing is fantastic, the scenery and the wilderness has embedded itself in my heart and soul. Writing this, I really do feel like I am watching myself in my own dream… I will return.